Princely Privilege

I recently became a subject of the British (and Canadian) Royal Family, so I guess I should start taking interest in their affairs, as it were. This made me laugh (emphasis mine).

The attorney general said there was a risk that the prince would not be seen to be politically neutral by the public if the letters were published.

“This risk will arise if, through these letters, the Prince of Wales was viewed by others as disagreeing with government policy. Any such perception would be seriously damaging to his role as future monarch because if he forfeits his position of political neutrality as heir to the throne, he cannot easily recover it when he is king,”

Prince Charles’s letters to ministers to remain private, court rules | UK news |

CharlesApparently, writing 27 letters about political issues (in bad handwriting, oh, the shame!) in an attempt to influence policy makers is okay. However, if the public saw them, it would not be okay, so we can’t see them.

I would like to use this defence next time I am a scofflaw.

Officer: I am going to give you a ticket for riding on the sidewalk.

Me: But Ma’am, if you do so, there’s a risk that I would not be seen to be law abiding by the public!! Any such perception would be seriously damaging to my role as future bicycle policy maven!

Officer: Yeah, that makes sense, have a good evening!

Me: Woohoo!

In all seriousness, I think the royals should use their enormous bully pulpit to champion important issues. They should be talking about climate change. They should be lobbying zoning boards! But, they need to do it out in the open just like their subjects.

Image of the prince of Wales used with thanks from Rizzato’s flickr stream under a creative commons licence.


My take on Hansen’s cautious nod to nuclear power

Nuclear energy has a bad reputation for many good reasons. It is expensive, nuclear waste is a problem we still do not know how to deal with, and accidents, while luckily rare, have catastrophic health consequences. I have not considered nuclear energy a viable alternative primarily because of cost and waste disposal issues. The considerable effects of accidents on human and ecosystem health, and the psychological burden of living near a nuclear power plant given the perception of ever present danger are also big factors.

However, I am going to have to look at this issue in greater detail. Kharecha and Hansen (2013) (yes, that Hansen) published a recent study (Open Access) that argues some of the benefits of nuclear power.

In the aftermath of the March 2011 accident at Japan’s Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, the future contribution of nuclear power to the global energy supply has become somewhat uncertain. Because nuclear power is an abundant, low-carbon source of base-load power, it could make a large contribution to mitigation of global climate change and air pollution. Using historical production data, we calculate that global nuclear power has prevented an average of 1.84 million air pollution-related deaths and 64 gigatonnes of CO2-equivalent GtCO2-eq greenhouse gas GHG emissions that would have resulted from fossil fuel burning. On the basis of global projection data that take into account the effects of the Fukushima accident, we find that nuclear power could additionally prevent an average of 420 000–7.04 million deaths and 80–240 GtCO2-eq emissions due to fossil fuels by midcentury, depending on which fuel it replaces. By contrast, we assess that large-scale expansion of unconstrained natural gas use would not mitigate the climate problem and would cause far more deaths than expansion of nuclear power.

via Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power – Environmental Science & Technology ACS Publications.


The big argument made here is that coal (and fossil fuel) combustion is linked to millions of excess deaths from air pollution. Kharecha and Hansen modelled the effects of replacing all the power generated by nuclear reactors with coal and natural gas and widely accepted correlations between fossil fuel combustion and increased death to come up with this number of lives saved from nuclear power use, about 1.8 million. In contrast, they calculate nuclear power to have caused about 5000 deaths, a few orders of magnitude lower!

Kharecha and Hansen use this fairly compelling data based a simple, easy to understand analysis, to caution countries against shuttering existing nuclear power plants, as Germany has proposed, or changing plans based on the Fukushima catastrophe.

My comments:

  • If you needed more confirmation that coal and natural gas combustion cause many many deaths, this helps. They also make the compelling argument that natural gas is not really going to save us at all, it does reduce air pollution deaths, but only on the margins.
  • The work adds valuable context on fossil fuel combustion related death by comparing it with a source of energy universally tagged as “dangerous”. It is easy for people to visualize, personalize and react viscerally to nuclear energy because our culture and recent history are filled with images and instances of horrific nuclear damage. The bombs dropped by the US on Japan affected millions and are still imprinted in people’s minds. I assume the word “nuclear energy” mostly bring up images of mushroom clouds and five eyed fish in people. These effects are real. It is, however, very difficult to visualize and personalize the slow, but persistent drip of deaths from air pollution. A heart attack, or heart failure, or pneumonia bout that kills an already vulnerable person cannot be positively attributed to air pollution. Only long term, big population epidemiological studies can show even a measurable increase in death rate (Dockery et al, 1993) when air quality deteriorates. But disasters like Chernobyl and Fukushima are acute and affect whole populations instantly. To show that nuclear power actually saved lives when compared with coal pollution is thought provoking, and enabled me to take a second look at nuclear power.
  • The argument to keep existing sources of nuclear energy going, while spending the money and time it takes to keep the infrastructure safe is convincing to me. Nuclear energy plants are very expensive to build, but relatively cheap to operate. A plant that is operating well, and is considered safe shouldn’t just be shut down in reaction to a single accident.
  • Given the declining cost trajectory of renewables, and the absolute necessity of humanity to become more energy efficient first, the authors do not make a compelling case for new nuclear power as an alternative to a more aggressive approach on renewable energy, efficiency. and reconsidering the “infinite growth on finite planet” paradigm. For example, see this video from Mark Jacobson on providing humans with electricity using a 100% renewable energy strategy.

  • Nuclear power plants cannot be built without extensive government intervention and planning because they are cost prohibitive, and huge potential liabilities. When that level of government intervention and support is required and needs to be mobilized, why not use it to deploy energy efficiency measures and renewable energy? Governments that push nuclear energy aggressively tend to become unpopular on a local level very fast, too easy to organize against. If short-term conventional economic cost is the only consideration, only coal and natural gas plants would get built anyway.
  • Nuclear waste disposal, and the horrors of uranium mining are a big stumbling block, and the authors do not have a ready answer for this problem. This makes the development of nuclear energy a nightmare for communities adjacent to plants, waste sites and mining operations. In a 2010 paper, Kharecha and Hansen (2010) argued that “High-priority development and demonstration of fourth-generation nuclear technology (including breeder reactors) is needed to provide a solution to nuclear waste disposal and eliminate the need to mine more uranium for many centuries”. Note, none of this technology is available, or even close to fruition. So, to argue for expanding nuclear power in the absence of waste management/mitigation strategies is unwise.
  • The stockpiling of nuclear weapons and the security apparatus around the offensive uses of nuclear power stand in the way of realistic cooperation or information sharing on research. Nuclear diplomacy is an antagonistic world of haves, want to haves, and have-nots, and countries like India that need power desperately do not have access to more modern technology and research because of their foolish offensive endeavours and the hypocrisy that is the nuclear “non-proliferation” regime (I can have 5000, you can’t have any).

This paper is an interesting contribution that shows us very clearly that we need to move away from fossil fuel combustion quickly for many reasons. I agree on not unwisely shutting down nuclear infrastructure that is performing well, but cannot go along on expanding nuclear power generation significantly because we really do not have a handle on the siting, waste disposal and constant sense of dread that pervades a neighbourhood with a nuclear plant.

Update: Andy Revkin writes about whether the “dread to risk” ratio is a good thing to measure, or keep in mind. I don’t agree with his casual lumping of complex, emerging issues like fracking, or low level chemical exposure into the same pile as nuclear radiation, which is a relatively easy to understand physical phenomenon studied for many years.

Peer Reviewed References

Kharecha, P.A., Hansen, J.E., 2013. Prevented Mortality and Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Historical and Projected Nuclear Power. Environ. Sci. Technol. 47, 4889–4895.

Kharecha, P.A., Kutscher, C.F., Hansen, J.E., Mazria, E., 2010. Options for Near-Term Phaseout of CO2 Emissions from Coal Use in the United States. Environ. Sci. Technol. 44, 4050–4062.

Dockery, D.W., Pope, C.A., 3rd, Xu, X., Spengler, J.D., Ware, J.H., Fay, M.E., Ferris, B.G., Jr, Speizer, F.E., 1993. An association between air pollution and mortality in six U.S. cities. N. Engl. J. Med. 329, 1753–1759.

Climate Change Adaptation

I read a peripherally related blog post on a book about experiencing local climate change and that set me thinking a bit.

One of the book’s biggest ideas is simply to emphasize what Seidl calls “true-to-life actions” (p.82), actions that discourage one’s habit of living without engagement with the people and the nonhuman around us, individually and in communities

I like this sentiment a lot, and agree wholeheartedly. The book (I haven’t read it) appears to talk about local ecosystem adaptation, which got me thinking about adaptation in general. When we talk about climate change adaptation, we need to be very specific on who/what can/will adapt, and what community engagement will entail. Of course, I believe mitigation, or minimisng the causes comes first, but this post is primarily about adaptation.

Species will adapt, so will ecosystems, and so will many humans. The Earth will, as well. It will just be a different world. Those of us living in affluent countries will feel the pain peripherally and will have enough buffer to change our ways of life. Some of us may even find ways to profit.

Now some investors are taking another approach. Working under the assumption that climate change is inevitable, they’re investing in businesses that will profit as the planet gets hotter. Their strategies include buying water treatment companies, brokering deals for Australian farmland…

Climate Change Vulnerability by region: White means low vulnerability (Ha!) – via

Adaptation is not a choice for the majority of humans on this planet that live in poor, coastal and vulnerable areas. They do not have the money to adapt, the effects on their ecosystems are bigger and faster, and we will not let them move to safer countries like Canada. They will lose land, resource, and when they have to fight to survive, their wars will be treated as caused by their virtue or ethnicity rather than being caused by our past and present consumption. Much of the resources that could mitigate effects may already be controlled by those who can profit from the resources. 

Humans will have to adapt, and use any and all strategies, but there’s no “we” in climate change adaptation, there’s the vulnerable and the not-so vulnerable. So, it is insufficient to only think locally. We aren’t the first humans who will be forced to move because of abrupt climate change. But those needing to move this time will face closed borders and hostile states. We have seen time and again, resource stress increases racism and xenophobia, and decreases trust.

What can affluent states do? For starters.

  1. Decarbonize. WIth intention, haste and unilaterally. 
  2. Help less affluent countries increase wealth, quickly.
  3. Help less affluent countries decarbonize, if less quickly because 2 is more important.
  4. Think long and hard about their borders, because current projections call for millions of environmental migrants.

We are, of course seeing the opposite. Carbon infrastructure in US and Canada is being expanded. Resources in less affluent countries are being developed for the use of the affluent (not always from affluent states). Trade wars being fought to protect affluent interests over cheap expansion of non-carbon infrastructure. Of course, race-based immigration policy, while not officially stated as such any more, is still operational.

We have a long way to go as a species to help everyone adapt to climate change. Humans are generally in a better place to take the necessary steps than we’ve been in the past, but the work should have started 20 years ago.


Enbridge in the Toronto Subway

Enbridge Toronto Spin

Yes, Enbridge does use the word “spin” here in connection with green washing.

I was in Toronto recently on this walkway between subway stations when I chanced upon a whole row of Enbridge billboards that were (I assume) supposed to give viewers the fuzzy-wuzzies about Enbridge and Natural Gas. There were at least 7-8 of these billboards in a row, but this was my favourite by far. I guess the ad producers don’t really care about having Enbridge associated with spin and green washing

Are there Vogons on Canada’s National Energy Board?

I did not know whether to laugh or cry when I read this morning of the new rules put in place to “help” Canada’s residents voice their concerns on the numerous pipeline projects that are to be built to ship diluted bitumen out of Alberta. The rules arise from the Omnibus “Budget” bill passed in 2012 that “streamlined” environmental assessments.

Ordinary Canadians who want to participate at the NEB hearings, or even write a letter to offer their thoughts, must first print the application form that was made available online on Friday, answer 10 pages of questions, then file it with both the NEB and Enbridge. And they must do so by April 19.The NEB also encourages those wishing to make submissions to include résumés and references. Only after an application is approved will the board accept a letter

via Energy board changes pipeline complaint rules – The Globe and Mail.

Sounds familiar?

Mr Prosser said: “You were quite entitled to make any suggestions or protests at the appropriate time you know.”


“But Mr Dent, the plans have been available in the local planning office for the last nine months.”


“But the plans were on display…”

“On display? I eventually had to go down to the cellar to find them.”

“That’s the display department.”

“With a torch.”

“Ah, well the lights had probably gone.”

“So had the stairs.”

“But look, you found the notice didn’t you?”

“Yes,” said Arthur, “yes I did. It was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying Beware of the Leopard.”

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams

Just a note that the Vogons gave us nine months notice to demolish earth and did not ask for a 10 page application, résumés, references and first born (one of these is not a requirement).


Picture of Vogon from Tim Ellis’ Flickr stream used under a Creative Commons Licence


A friend’s post on facebook triggered some thoughts on religion, so I expanded my comment (not science/policy related, so feel free to glaze over).

I grew up Hindu, or shall we say, Tamil Brahmin. In India, each community’s practice of Hinduism is very different, informed by place, caste, class and more, so calling yourself a Hindu is not very illuminating. I went to the temples with my parents, and felt a connection with something (in hindsight, it was the architecture, grandeur more than Ganapathy) I prayed (after a fashion), more for specific things like “Oh god, let me do well in this test” rather than anything. I participated in the ritual and festivals, like any good kid. All this ritualistic practice aside, my single greatest spiritual memory as a young adult (and to this day) is a 5 minute meditation experience I had with my uncle sitting in a simple Ramakrishna Mission hall. I remember losing connection with my usually racing brain and reaching what I perceived as a meaningful connection with God, but what I would now associate with a particularly successful mindfulness practice. I still haven’t quite achieved that sense of “levitation” since.

I remember being about 15, going to a really crowded temple (I think it was this one) and jostling with thousands of other people to get a fleeting glimpse of a stone (or gold plated? super rich temple!) idol, I lost my faith in one moment (at least, that’s how I perceive it). I persisted in going to temples and participating in ritual for a bit, hell, even going back to the same temple a couple of years later, but there was nothing there.

ganapathyInto my late teens and twenties, I tuned much more into the powers of organized religion to oppress, deny freedom and restrict behaviour. At that age, I perceived the community around me using religion (in hindsight, it’s much more complicated) to restrict my activities and censure them (oh privileged male!). I was very likely to lump the people with their religion. I did not believe religion to be a force of anything other than restriction and censure, and I judged the people around me who still practiced their religion in spite of “ought to know better”. I very plainly refused to practice any rituals, or go to temples. Leaving India helped as well, since I had no community pressure to practice anything.

Those years were ritual free (after a fashion), and I would call myself a primarily analytical person, using logic to solve problems (oh, so simple!). But, I did find ritual missing in my life. Into my thirties, I sub-consciously (at first) started to incorporate some ritualistic practices like morning coffee, regular gym workouts, and many other time based ritual activities as a substitute. My health and well-being definitely improved, though you could say the fact that I chose gym workouts as a ritual rather than bar hopping did not hurt! But, that’s really the point of ritual, isn’t it, to find the ones that centre you?

As I grow older, I am less militantly anti-religious and more likely to incorporate yoga, mindfulness, meditation and other behaviours that could be associated with spirituality into my life. But I see them as healthy behaviours, almost like exercise rather than connecting me to something greater. I went through a phase wishing I could believe in a god again, it would be a lot easier than having to figure it out for yourself, but that passed. I am still as atheist as I’ve ever been, just a lot more tolerant of other people’s paths and processes. I understand that everyone’s well being depends on connection, whether it is social, or spiritual or physical. If their practice of “religion” or their belief helps them achieve that connection, that’s just lovely (The last few times I’ve visited India, I’ve even let my parents drag me on temple excursions!) That is, as long as they do not end up supporting oppressive homophobic, racist or misogynist behaviour based on religion. I still believe that most organized religion is a tool of patriarchy and control, and cynically uses people’s need for connection to achieve political power and money, so no support there.